Days 234 - 236
I was the only foreigner on the bus. Nobody aboard spoke any English beyond “hello.” When we left at 7am, our guide was presumably going over the plan for the day, though I didn't understand much of what he was saying. Four hours later, he was still going strong.
The previous day I had signed up for a three-day tour of 九寨沟 (Jiuzhaigou) National Park, located in Sichuan Province, near the Tibetan plateau. Normally I don't like to go on tours, but it was cheaper than going on my own, and far easier. The hostel employee who helped me sign up explained that the park was about ten hours from Chengdu by bus. She also warned me that there probably wouldn't be any other foreigners on the tour, and that our guide would probably try to sell us stuff. But she reassured me that I wasn't required to buy anything.
Eventually our guide stopped talking and walked the length of the bus, demanding that everyone give him 300 rmb for extra activities. I didn't even understand what these activities were, so I refused to pay. I don't think he liked me.
In the middle of the day we stopped in a little village. I had no idea what was going on, which was quickly becoming a theme for this trip. As it turned out, we had stopped for lunch. I sat around the table with some of my fellow tour-goers. Everyone else was highly skilled at chopsticks, so they finished eating within a few minutes. I wasn't nearly as good, so I was still shoveling food into my mouth when the bus began to back out of its parking spot. I ran out and jumped aboard before it pulled away without me. I was still hungry.
Snowy mountains surrounded us as we followed the Minjiang River (岷江) for most of the day. Tunnels, some of which were five kilometers long, took us through the mountains. Just like a few days earlier on my way to Kunming, I was amazed by the giant engineering projects of southwest China.
Later we stopped at a village, parked next to a bunch of other tour buses and walked into a large building. I thought we were getting some kind of tour because someone was charging one rmb to enter. I paid my money, walked around a corner and learned the truth: everyone was going to the bathroom.
Afterward our group started walking together and my guide pleaded for me to give him 100 rmb. There was a big wall surrounding the village, and it appeared that the fee was simply to walk on it. I refused to pay and started walking on my own. My guide grew frustrated and told me to meet him at the bus in an hour.
In 2008, an earthquake struck this part of Sichuan Province, killing 70,000 and leveling most of the buildings. The village looked like it had been completely rebuilt since then. It had some remnants of Tibetan culture, but was mainly filled with Chinese people selling cheap souvenirs. I rejoined the tour an hour later; none of the other tourists were raving about their trip to the top of the wall.
At the end of the day we stopped in another village that I assumed was near the park, though I still had no idea what the plan was. Our guide said a bunch of stuff that I didn't understand and people slowly shuffled out of the bus. Were we at our hotel? A souvenir shop? Another bathroom?
We were at dinner! But unfortunately, we only got a few small dishes that we had to share between six people. I easily could've eaten eaten them all. Judging from the ceremonial sashes everyone was wearing, this place was about much more than just food.
After we ate, an emcee got on the microphone and taught us a few basic words in the Tibetan language like “thank you” and “cheers.” Just when I thought he would instruct the wait staff to serve the main course, he started singing. Then a girl, decked out in traditional Tibetan clothing, came in and joined. They got the crowd to join in the chorus. Finally, they walked around the room and handed us each a small boiled potato. And then I was singing, too.
Just as I was getting into the celebration, the music abruptly stopped and everyone left the building. I had been waiting for the main course; now I was waiting for the punchline. But it didn't come. The appetizers and tiny potato were all we were getting to eat. The other tourists danced around a “fire” made from tin foil with one of the Tibetans. Starving, I went back to the bus.
Continuing along the highway, we passed a huge amusement park and a few resort hotels, all Jiuzhaigou themed. We pulled into one of these places and I thought we must be at our hotel. We walked inside and were led down a hallway, where I was expecting to find my room. Instead, we entered a giant theater, where a dance performance was beginning!
For me, this show came totally unexpected. I didn't remember seeing it on the itinerary, and my Chinese wasn't good enough to understand what my guide was telling me. But I highly enjoyed it nonetheless. It had just the right combination of quirky costumes and elaborate, choreographed dance routines to make my night. The strangest thing was that after an hour, the show ended without any apparent warning. The cast never bowed or did a curtain call; the audience never applauded. Everyone just left the building in silence.
After the show, we piled back into the bus, and this time, we actually did go to our hotel. I was ready to pass out, preferably with my pillow pressed against my stomach to suppress the hunger. Once again, I was surprised. This time, a fellow tourist knocked on my door and insisted that I come with her. She led me down the hall, where the whole tour group was eating dinner. And there weren't just appetizers – we had a full-fledged Chinese meal with all the fixin's. I almost cried tears of joy. I wouldn't go hungry tonight, after all.
As we ate, our guide went over the plan for tomorrow. I didn't understand much of it, but luckily, he came over and told me, using slow and clear Chinese, to be ready to go at 7:20 the next morning. I thought this was rather late, considering that we were going to spend our day in a national park. Shouldn't we take advantage of the short amount of daylight available to us? Nevertheless, I agreed and repeated the time to him so there could be no mistaking it. I would be in the lobby at 7:20.
I was in the lobby at 7:20. Alone. There wasn't even an employee at the reception desk. All sorts of possibilities went through my head. Had everyone in our entire group slept late? Had I misunderstood our start time? Had everyone already left without me? Before panicking, I decided to wait a few minutes.
At 7:30 the oldest man on our tour came to the lobby. I tried asking him where everyone was but he didn't seem to understand. He was cheerful, though. And I felt comforted, knowing that at least I wasn't alone in the hotel.
At 7:50 the others started coming into the lobby. I figured we were about to leave, but then at 8:00 we sat down for breakfast. Was 7:20 supposed to be our wake-up time? I still didn't understand.
Finally at 8:40 we boarded the bus for the short drive to the park. We stopped at the back of a giant parking lot and started walking, painfully slowly, toward the entrance. It was now 9:00 and we had already wasted three hours of daylight. Once we reached the entrance, our guide took out a long rod and pointed to all of the places we could go on a metal map of the park. This took another fifteen minutes. Just when I thought we would all enter the park together, our guide turned around and walked away. So he wasn't even going inside. Before he left us, I confirmed with him multiple times with me that we were to meet at that point at 5:30. I thought I understood him this time, though I couldn't be certain.
Our group stood in a long line, where identical buses picked people up every three minutes. These were the only vehicles allowed in the park. That still didn't stop them from getting into accidents, though. As we drove past the park's beautiful scenery, a TV in the bus played tranquil music and explained to everyone all of the beautiful scenery the park had to offer. The bus continued uphill for around twenty minutes before dropping us off, picking up a new set up of passengers and heading back downhill.
Park employees led everyone onto a wooden boardwalk. I shuffled slowly down the hill, in the center of a cluster of Chinese tourists, past a turquoise lake, surrounded by pine trees, with snow-capped mountains in the distance. The lake was so clear, I could see all the way to the bottom. The air was crisp and clean. Not one piece of trash was on the ground. This was a dream landscape. If only I could get away from all of the people, I might be able to enjoy it.
I walked around the boardwalk, looking for a hiking trail. All of the routes that led away from the lake were closed, supposedly to prevent wildfires. I couldn't believe it. This didn't seem like a dry landscape. In fact, it was winter. The ground was still frozen. And how would walking on a trail put me in danger of starting a fire, anyway? If I couldn't take the trails, maybe I could walk down the road to get away form the crowds. As soon as I set foot on the pavement, a guard yelled at me and told me to turn around. This was some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen, yet I couldn't even enjoy it. Instead, I shuffled back aboard the bus, along with the throngs of tourists. I felt like a caged animal.
The bus took us to another viewing platform. Again, the trails were closed. Using my best Chinese, I asked a few people what was happening. None of them could give me a clear answer. Worse yet, they didn't seem to care. The peaceful hike I wanted was right in front of me, yet I couldn't take it. I was going stir-crazy.
I began to question everything I thought I knew about China. When crossing the road in a city, you can run through ten lanes of traffic, risking your life the entire way, no problem. You can also drive down the wrong side of the road and park in the middle of it. But you can't even take a leisurely stroll down a hiking trail in a national park. The longer I was in China, the less I understood. At this rate, by the time I left the country, I would understand nothing at all.
I found a group of women from my tour and they invited me to have lunch with them, near the edge of one of the lakes. They were extremely nice and insisted that I take their food. I ate pig spine and chicken gizzard. They refused to try my peanut butter. I looked around and noticed that they were all enjoying themselves immensely. Maybe, just maybe, I was beginning to understand something about Chinese culture: This was exactly the nature experience most Chinese wanted. They valued shared experiences, something they could talk about later with each other. And they wanted to observe nature from afar, like they were watching it on a really high definition TV. Whereas I (and most Westerners, I imagine), wanted to be a part of nature, to walk through it alone, to listen to the chirping of birds and the blowing of wind, to feel snow crunching under my boots, to smell the flowers, to camp outdoors, to really take it all in, not just look at it. Maybe that was why I was frustrated and everyone else seemed happy.
The park closed at 5pm, two hours before sunset. Jiuzhaigou was a national treasure, yet you couldn't even watch the sunrise or sunset, hike or camp within its boundaries. I thought: What a strange world China is.
I took the last bus of the day to the park's entrance and got there at 5:20, ten minutes before I was supposed to meet the group. Nobody was there. This should not have come as a surprise, given the SNAFU this morning at the hotel. I remembered that my guide had given me his phone number, so I asked a girl who spoke English call him. He screamed at her, until she was almost crying. Apparently I was supposed to meet the group in the bus parking lot, not at the park entrance. I apologized to her for putting her through that treatment. I had just met her a few minutes earlier; she wasn't even part of our tour group.
I jogged down the road to the bus parking lot, where I was directed through a giant shop of cheap souvenirs. When I reached the other side of the shop, I found my bus and climbed aboard. Our guide screamed at everyone. I understood a few words, such as “phone call” and “late.” It seemed that he was mostly mad at the others for not looking after me and making sure I made it back in time. It was 5:31. I was one minute late. His tirade continued for a solid ten minutes.
We drove back to the motel and had the same food for dinner again. It was still rather early, but I was mentally exhausted, so I didn't feel like going anywhere else. Nobody told me what time to get up, so I tried to figure it out for myself. Our itinerary for tomorrow simply had us driving back to Chengdu, arriving at 8pm. It had taken us ten hours to drive here, with numerous stops along the way. Even if we went back slowly, we wouldn't have to leave until ten in the morning. On the other hand, breakfast was at 8am today, so that time seemed like a safer bet. But just in case I had missed something, I set my alarm for 7am, planning to be in the lobby, ready to go, by 7:30.
A loud and persistent knock on my hotel room's door woke me. I rolled over and looked at the clock. Six-twenty in the morning. What. The. Fuck?
Two women were in the hallway, shouting at me to get moving. I told them to wait and went into a mad scramble to pack everything. The women wouldn't stop shouting and pounding, no matter how many times I told them to hold on.
I made it to the hallway at 6:30, packed and ready to go. The women were the same people I had eaten lunch with yesterday. Apparently they picked up on my seething anger, because now they seemed concerned with my well-being. I asked if there was still breakfast. They looked at each other awkwardly and I knew the answer. They asked what was wrong. I was too mad to think in Chinese, so I said in English, “Why didn't anybody tell me we had to get up two hours earlier than yesterday?” and stormed into the lobby.
We were the last three people to board the bus. Our guide still looked furious, but he refrained from shouting. One of the women seemed to indicate that she had explained our 6am wake-up time the previous evening. I didn't understand why she hadn't made this more clear. It's not like I simply got the time wrong; I literally had no idea she had told me something important. Apparently, nobody on the bus even realized that when you're talking to a foreigner, you have to speak slower than you would with your friends, and maybe even repeat yourself. It wasn't like my fellow tour-goers were from tiny villages in the middle of nowhere. They were from big cities. And they were middle-class. They owned houses and cars and iPhone 6's, and they could afford to go on trips like this one. Yet somehow, they seemed to have gone their entire lives without meeting someone who wasn't Chinese. Normally I found it endearing to be in places so far removed from the Western world, but today I just wanted to eat, sleep and get back to the city.
Soon after we left, the bus stopped and we all got out. I had no idea what was coming. The building we entered was filled with crystals for sale, some of which cost 500,000 rmb. Everyone walked along the showroom floor, staring at the crystals in awe. I returned to the bus early and fell asleep.
Next we drove to a Tibetan village and went into an old house. A Tibetan girl with a black fedora and a nose ring started talking to us. She wore a traditional outfit, and the house was old, with stone walls and a fireplace, so I figured she was teaching everyone about her culture. But then she passed around some bracelets and I realized she was trying to sell us cheap souvenirs. She continued to talk and talk and talk. I fell asleep for a few minutes and when I woke, she was still talking. Twenty minutes into her sales pitch I returned to the bus and passed out while waiting for everyone else.
We stopped at three more places, and each time I asked the others if this was our lunch stop. Nope, more shopping. I stayed on the bus and slept. Finally, at about 3pm, we had lunch at the same place as two days ago. I was so hungry, I could barely eat. Or maybe I was getting sick. At any rate, I probably slept for six hours during the day. Everyone else shopped.
We made it back to Chengdu at 8pm. I said goodbye to my fellow tour-goers, but I didn't have the energy to say much else. The tour was any eye-opening look into Chinese culture. And the nature was world-class. I was glad I got to see Jiuzhaigou, but it would be difficult to convince me to go on a Chinese tour again.